Monday, May 16, 2011

Amateur Historians

Alvin Josephy loved amateur historians. When I opened the Bookloft in Enterprise in 1976, he was still working full time at American Heritage in New York City, writing his big history books and newspaper and magazine articles in the midnight hours. He and his wife, Betty, would come west each summer, she for the summer, he for a few weeks before he went back to the job.

And the Bookloft was always one of his first stops. He would comb the western and local history shelves for new books like 35 Years on Smith Mountain and Hells Canyon of Snake River, make a big stack of them at the counter, and ask about more. Were there new novels, books or pamphlets, diaries, books of letters, anything on the Nez Perce, fishing the Columbia, on Lewis and Clark and the Indians.

He would talk about academic historians missing out on the West because they confined themselves too much to official documents—treaties, proclamations, occasionally the newspaper article, although journalism was suspect. And Indians didn’t have much written history of their own. There were the treaties and the accounts of military officers in campaigns against them, but their own stories, carried from generation to generation by families and tribal storytellers, were invisible to most academic historians.

Stories of women and accounts of the Chinese and Japanese, the people whose written records were in different languages and scripts, were likewise invisible or hard to find in standard texts—although in the 70s, the women’s movement and women historians like Sue Armitage at Washington State University were finding and publishing women’s diaries and letters. But, in the 1970s and 80s, most of these things were still mostly found in small, local, often self-published editions, the things Alvin had made a habit of collecting since he heard and was captivated by the Nez Perce story while a journalist at Time Magazine.

According to him, amateurs kept the stories of the West alive. Here in the Wallowas, “Pioneer Society” stalwart Harley Horner assembled a “History of Wallowa County” in big scrapbooks in alphabetical order by names and places, with letters, news accounts, and his own reportage pasted in. When Grace Butterfield, whose father was a newspaper man, moved to town, she worked with Horner and transcribed his scrapbooks into a typed document that has had an amazing journey of its own. Fortunately, the "Horner papers" are now back in the Wallowa County Museum--but that is another story!

When Alvin wrote his book on the Nez Perce, Grace differed on some local matters, and Alvin encouraged her to get the details straight. She did, in The Wallowa Country: 1866-76, a fine locally published book about the ten years of White settlement leading up to the Nez Perce War.

Later, Josephy worked with Grace and her Nez Perce husband, Harry Bartlett, to get the true history of the Appaloosa horse to the public. Alvin wrote a piece and helped publish one by Harry and Grace about the spotted horses in the Brand Book a magazine published by a group of artists, writers, librarians, and aficionados of the West who called themselves “Westerners.” This New York posse would meet monthly for dinner and discussion of Billy the Kid, General Custer, and, as Alvin once wrote, “which side of the river Lewis and Clark traveled on.” Famed writer Mari Sandoz was a member of the New York posse, and there were brother or sister posses in Chicago, Denver, London, and Los Angeles.

I don’t believe any of the articles in these magazines were written for PhD theses—but there their contents must have been used by many later candidates for the degree.

1 comment :

  1. Is it possible to get copies of these articles?

    ReplyDelete